Friday, February 3, 2023

Federal judge temporarily blocks Governor Cooper’s restrictions on indoor religious services [Free read]

Governor Roy Cooper’s office indicated it would not appeal a federal judge’s decision to block his executive order banning indoor religious services pending a hearing in two weeks. (Port City Daily photo / File)

RALEIGH — In response to a federal lawsuit filed earlier this week, a U.S. District Court judge has issued an order blocking Governor Roy Cooper’s executive order banning indoor religious congregations of more than 10 people.

Cooper’s executive order 138, which laid out the new regulations for the first of three phases of a reopening plan, relaxed restrictions on retailers by allowing them to operate at up to 50% of their occupancy limit (up from 20%). While the governor’s office has issued guidance allowing outdoor gatherings of more than 10 people for religious activities (provided social distancing is in effect), no similar increase in capacity for indoor services was allowed.

On May 8, the day Phase 1 took effect, North Carolina Sheriff’s Association (NCSA) issued a resolution asking Cooper to amend his executive order and allow indoor service, provided that houses of worship adhered to increased safety precautions similar to those that were required of retail outlets. The resolution was signed by 12 members, including current NCSA President and Brunswick County Sheriff John W. Ingram, V and NCSA Second Vice President and New Hanover County Sheriff Ed McMahon.

During a press conference, Cooper addressed the apparent disparity and the NCSA resolution, saying his office did not want to see churches and other religious centers become ‘hotspots’ for the spread of Covid-19 due to the close proximity over extended periods of time of the congregation members. Cooper also noted that he personally missed in-person church services. Ultimately, while Cooper promised restrictions would be lifted in the future, the ban on indoor services stood.

The same day several religious groups sued Cooper in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, arguing that this allegedly unequal treatment amounted to a violation of their First Amendment rights.

On Saturday, U.S. District Court Judge James C. Dever III issued an order Saturday to halt Cooper’s order, with a hearing set for May 29.

In a press release, Governor’s office spokesman Ford Porter said Cooper and his staff disagreed with the judge but would not appeal; Porter said the Govenor’s office continues to urge adheres to public health guidelines.

“We don’t want indoor meetings to become hotspots for the virus and our health experts continue to warn that large groups sitting together inside for long periods of time are much more likely to cause the spread of COVID-19. While our office disagrees with the decision, we will not appeal, but instead urge houses of worship and their leaders to voluntarily follow public health guidance to keep their members safe,” according to the release.

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